Seventy years ago, the entire population of a New Hampshire town left their homes and vanished into the woods. The bodies of nearly 300 of these missing people were later discovered, mutilated corpses which bore the signs of murder and exposure to the elements. The rest of the townsfolk were never recovered, lost to the eerie and still unexplored environs of New Hampshire. This much, YellowBrickRoad tells us in an opening montage filled with black and white pictures of the search teams and the abandoned town of Friar. Accompanying these shots, along with brief glimpses of those savaged bodies, is an audio recording of the sole survivor found walking through the forest, a man apparently still caught in whatever delirium gripped the rest of his fellow citizens. Images of that forest beckon to the viewer throughout this sequence, a wild, dark place so easily romanticized from a distance and still so full of secrets, even after ages of scientific inquiry and industrial development. YellowBrickRoad focuses on a group of young explorers who now, over half a century after this disappearance, manage to secure the coordinates of the spot from which the doomed inhabitants of Friar set out on their voyage into the dark. Confident, bursting with excitement and hubris, these researchers will seek out that same path with the intention of solving one of history’s mysteries, intending to deconstruct a modern legend with all the glossy-eyed exuberance and irreverence of the MythBusters crew. If there is, however, to be a successful act of deconstruction, it will not be the heart of the forest which will be plucked out…
Teddy Barnes has been obsessed with the case of Friar for quite some time, but has been stymied in his attempts to discover the location of the trailhead. Now, though, we find him in a dusty lobby where an over-solicitous and apologetic clerk hands him the coordinates for which he has been searching. We are then introduced to Teddy’s wife, Melissa, as well as the couple’s close friend, a therapist named Walter. These three assemble a team and the film moves to Friar. At the very outset of their expedition, unfortunately, Teddy and his friends hit what seems to be a major obstacle: the coordinates they’ve been given match the town’s movie theater. Frustrated by this absurdity (what path begins in a cinema?) and increasingly put-off by the hostility of Friar’s citizens, the team is almost ready to abort their mission and go home. Teddy, desperate over this collapse of his dream, is then drawn into the confidence of one of the theater’s ushers. The townspeople did make their departure from this theater, she says, though they entered the forest at another spot. She paints a quick picture of that generation, a populace ground down by difficulties, struggling with the Great Depression as well as a looming war overseas. Their abandonment of the town, she suggests, may have had less to do with what they were walking towards and more to do with the grey, sad existence they were leaving behind. She claims her grandfather visited Friar often prior to the strange exodus of its citizens and that he has shown her the real trailhead. Following her lead, the team finds their way into the forest.
What follows is a disturbing plunge into madness and inexplicable events, as these explorers fall prey to the forces of the forest as well as the unexplored chasms within themselves. This is “character-centered” horror, wherein psychological instabilities prove to be equally as dangerous as supernatural entities. The latter force is certainly real in the film, but it serves as a prompt more than a centerpiece, a horrific MacGuffin, to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s terminology. This strategy has been used successfully in horror film before YellowBrickRoad and it serves as a fine addition to the sub-genre. The Haunting (1963), for instance, presents a riddle which is never actually solved, creating more questions than answers. Session 9 would prove to be a better companion piece for YellowBrickRoad than The Blair Witch Project, to which it has often been compared. Blair Witch announces the metaphysical nature of its central monster at the outset and moves on to deliver it as promised, building its tensions through relatively simple emotional displays and ominous teasing. In this sense, it works like an amusement park ride, all adrenaline and atmosphere. YellowBrickRoad, on the other hand, like the woods through which it makes its way, refuses to relinquish its secrets at the end of the path… I believe a word of warning concerning its enigmatic quality will enhance first-time viewer’s experience and not “ruin” the film. Moreover, this aspect of the film is thoroughly tied to one of its major themes: the search for understanding, the yearning for definitive explanation, and the pitfalls into which these desires often lead us.
Teddy’s team comes to the forest equipped with the best navigational technology their research money can buy. These are young people who have grown up surrounded by GPS and cell phones, and their attitude toward their journey reflects an assumption of easy mastery of the elements. Walter the therapist brings a camcorder so he can keep track of their emotional states and he periodically submits the team members to amusing little tests designed to ferret out any pesky psychological disturbances. One by one, however, these tools prove inadequate for dealing with the forest path. Almost immediately, the navigational devices go haywire, insisting the team has somehow wandered thousands of miles off course. All their measurements are swiftly rendered nonsensical, suggesting they have strayed into a realm wherein space moves like liquid and nothing is fixed. When some try to turn back, they will discover there may be no way off the path. Similarly, Walter’s confident psychological testing proves useless in the face of the emotional disintegration which takes hold of every member of the team. One person seems to be losing all memories of a life before the path, while another goes inexplicably, and horrifically, mad. In fact, the last use to which Walter’s camera is put is a denial of its power as a cold eye of objectivity. Every step of the way the team is shown that their exuberant rational inquiry is doomed to fail. Some mysteries are determined to remain opaque, and only serve as walls against which people can destroy themselves.
Whatever the meaning of the final scene of YellowBrickRoad (and there certainly does seem to be a message there), this last point is an important one. When this movie refuses to explain itself, it does so for reasons which are perfectly consistent with its theme. Had it ended with a tidy explanation, or even a slightly more detailed one, it would have been betraying itself on a fundamental level. Teddy at one point argues that they cannot turn back because they are now implicated in the mystery of Friar’s woods. “These questions,” he insists, “will kill us.” The movie suggests that this statement can be taken in at least two ways: as he means it, a lack of solutions may prove deadly, a horrific itch in the brain left there by what they have undergone which could metastasize into madness. Unfortunately, though, the very asking of these questions may be what will destroy them. From the flippant and calculative attitudes the team brings to their exploration, we may believe it is the manner in which those questions are asked that is the problem. Aside from the obsessive nature of Teddy’s interest, though, we are not shown another style in which the path could have been travelled. In the end, this threatens to make the message of YellowBrickRoad a nihilistic one, but it is not the job of every work of horror to suggest a way out of the danger. Sometimes merely pointing out where it lies is difficult enough. Here, the danger seems wrapped up in questions of escapism and salvation, and that is where The Wizard of Oz may be playing a central role in this more disturbing film.
The people of Friar were particularly entranced by The Wizard of Oz and watched their copy until it was in tatters. It was after one such viewing that nearly 600 people left the town and headed into the forest. While the team members do not waste much time on film analysis, they do speculate that these desperate people may have been seeking an Emerald City of their own, following the siren call of prosperity and happiness. They even joke about a god being at the end of this path, some wish-fulfilling, meaning-dispensing wizard. Perhaps this would explain why the people of Friar wore their best clothing on their trek. The Wizard of Oz was released towards the end of the Depression, just as the Nazis began the hostilities of World War II and Americans were faced with the dilemma of joining the conflict or watching fascism eat Europe. This is the world people sought to leave behind on the Yellow Brick Road. Oz promises a strange sort of homecoming, in that moving away from her place of departure actually brings Dorothy closer to a return to her world. It also presents an easily destroyed enemy, capable of being melted away with a bit of water. Presiding over the shining Emerald City is the Wizard himself, who proves to be a largely benevolent, even silly figure. Compared with the dismal and disappointing reality of Friar, of course this looked attractive. As a piece of pop culture, Oz offered healing, tolerance and progress. While the world (America in particular) was to see a great deal of improvement and growth in the post-War climate, the road it was travelling in 1940 was blood-soaked, not golden, and it led not to an Emerald City but to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Whatever other answers they may have received in those woods, the citizens of Friar discovered the dark heart which lurks even within escapist fantasies.
The world revealed by the birth of the atomic bomb seems particularly relevant to YellowBrickRoad. With that weapon came some of the first intuitions that human beings could significantly impact the Earth’s environment. This sense was strengthened in the following decades as the effects of pollution began to be recognized. Teddy’s team is not an especially destructive one, but their technologically dependant encounter with the wild may shed some light on the largely inscrutable climax of the film. Without going into details, the ending seems to point toward the worst of our post-industrial nightmares. As we are reminded, “This is our home,” and it will carry every scar we inflict upon it long after we have learned our lesson (one way or another). This interpretation is backed up by just a few slivers of dialogue, I must confess, but they are enough to suggest YellowBrickRoad may be meant as a warning. In our endless search for answers and the mastery of the mysterious world with which we are surrounded, we may be in the process of irreversibly poisoning it. Most films centered on travel touch at least peripherally on the adage “The journey is the destination,” but now we find that by following certain paths, we find the journey shapes the destination. Our obsessions not only form our characters, they may even distort whatever goals we eventually reach. Whether these distortions come in the shape of blighted landscapes or corrupted souls, surrealistic nightmares or acts of hideous betrayal against loved ones (and this movie is filled with all of the above), they should give us pause in the questions we seek to answer and the manner in which we do so.
YellowBrickRoad is a film which asks viewers to participate with it, in that it demands an interpretive stance in ways other pieces do not. Not only is the final nature of that toward which the town of Friar and Teddy’s team left undefined, but viewers are left to judge the actions of those who walked the path. Every soul on this trip will respond to the call of the path in ways particular to them: nihilistic abandonment to violence, greedy groping for sensory pleasures (never has candy seemed as important as in this world), passive despair or an unrelenting (and unforgivable) determination to see things through to the end. Whether their responses are implanted by an alien power or culled from everyday human weakness is also up to the viewer to decide, and provides another disturbing element to an already nightmarish scenario. Many theorists have argued that while we read texts, they read us in return. The path the team follows is most certainly reading them. Passive viewership in this sort of piece is not as rewarding as it may be in other movies, though the YellowBrickRoad does contain plenty of surface pleasures. The supernatural effects the team encounters are subtle, by and large, but eerily effective. A scarecrow is one of only two figures from The Wizard of Oz to visit this story, but its appearance is gruesome in a film largely devoted to unseen terrors. Though the movie implies more violence than it shows, one particular act caught this reviewer entirely off guard, an event all too rare in an age of telegraphed and heavily prepared-for brutalities.
The movie is the first effort from Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton. I cannot wait to see where they go next. While there are some minor deficiencies with the plot (particularly in how fast the team passes from excitement to anxiety) and some jarring special effects (the final image, wonderfully horrific in both its shape and implications, is still a bit too artificial looking), YellowBrickRoad is a fascinating, unique journey into the dark hearts of its characters. Those woods loom in the imagination even as the credits roll and, if you are open to the unresolved nature of its mystery, that path and what you see at its end will haunt you too.
 Interestingly enough, one of The Blair Witch Project’s directors, Daniel Myrick, recently released The Objective, a movie more comfortable with uncertainty than his previous work and far more comparable with YellowBrickRoad.